The Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention

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I am often wrong. I misunderstand; I misremember; I believe things I shouldn’t. I’m overly optimistic about the future quality of Downton Abbey, and inexact in my recall of rock-star shenanigans. But I am not often—knock wood—wrong in print, and that’s because, as a journalist, I’ve had advanced training in Bullshit Prevention Protocol (BPP).

Lately, as I’ve watched smarter and better-dressed friends believe all manner of Internet nonsense, I’ve come to appreciate my familiarity with BPP. Especially because we’re all publishers now. (Sharing a piece of news with 900 Facebook friends is not talking. It’s publishing.) And publishing bullshit is extremely destructive: It makes it harder for the rest of us to distinguish between bogus news and something real, awful, and urgent.

While BPP is not failsafe, generations of crotchety, underpaid, truth-loving journalists have found that it dramatically reduces one’s chances of publishing bullshit.

So I believe that everyone should practice BPP before publishing. No prior experience is required: Though it’s possible to spend a lifetime debating the finer points of BPP (and the sorely-needed news literacy movement wants high-school and college students to spend at least a semester doing so) its general principles, listed in a handy, portable, and free—free!—form above, are simple.

Here’s how they work in practice.

1. Who is telling me this? More specifically, who is writing this and for what publication? How credible is the publication? What are its potential biases? Consider a piece of bullshit that made the Internet rounds earlier this year: The UK’s Daily Mail published a striking photo of a sunrise projected on an outdoor screen. The accompanying article, by James Nye, was headlined “China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog.” Let’s say you’re not familiar with the Daily Mail. A quick look at its other headlines (“What does your poo say about you?” “Man arrested after strolling naked through Wal-Mart”) will tell you that it can be politely described as a fishwrapper. Safe to assume, for the purposes of BPP, that it is Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 8.42.03 AMmore interested in web traffic than accuracy.

2. How does he or she know this? A Google search of James Nye shows that he’s based in Brooklyn. Hmm. So chances are he didn’t see these TV screens firsthand. Yes, there is a photo with the article, but we don’t know where it was taken, what’s happening outside the frame, and if the headline accurately describes what the photo depicts. We’re counting on the reporter to check that, and it doesn’t sound like he was there. (A Google search of Nye also turns up a blog post from the Poynter Institute—a scrupulous news watchdog—that accuses him of fabricating a courtroom scene in a Daily Mail article about a Georgia murder trial.)

3. Given #1 and #2, is it possible that she or he is wrong? Or lying? Nye is writing for a paper that prizes virality, and he doesn’t appear to have been anywhere near Beijing when he wrote the article. Yes.

4. If answer to #3 is “yes,” find another, unrelated source. Okay, well, Time and CBS News also picked up this story. Both base their reputation on accuracy, so they have a stake in preserving it—in other words, they’re likely to be more reliable than the Daily Mail. But the Time and CBS posts (now very awkwardly corrected) simply credit the Daily Mail story, without any sign of original reporting. So these are not unrelated sources. They’re essentially the same source as the Daily Mail. Try again.

5. Repeat until answer to #3 is “pretty f-ing unlikely.” If you really wanted to know the truth here, you could start by finding the photographer—which might take some doing, since the photo is credited to an agency instead of an individual. But even if he or she confirmed the context of the photograph, you couldn’t count on that—after all, the photographer also has a stake in the story’s popularity, and might want to protect it. Better would be to find a friend, or a vouched-for friend of a friend, who lived in Beijing and was willing to take a look at the screens for you. But that person would need to do more than just confirm that the screens existed. She would have to confirm that the picture was being shown to citizens because of the smog, meaning she’d probably have to be comfortable in Mandarin and have enough connections to know who to ask and where to find them. Wait. Isn’t this person beginning to sound a lot like a journalist?

Which brings me to my larger point. Preventing bullshit is time-consuming, and thoroughly fact-checking an entire article can feel like a particularly demented form of needlepoint. There’s a good reason why my Facebook posts and tweets are almost exclusively about my family and friends, certain TV shows, and articles written by me and people I know and trust. I don’t have a lot of time to practice BPP for free, and I don’t want to share bullshit.

So you could try to chase down the sunrise-billboard photographer. You could try to find an obliging, knowledgeable acquaintance in Beijing. But you’re probably a busy person, and you probably don’t care all that much about this particular story. So instead, you could sit tight for a couple of news cycles and let a professional journalist check into it—we do still have a few of those, after all. Sure enough, Beijing-based journalist Paul Bischoff, writing for the ethics-conscious pub Tech in Asia, soon reported that the Daily Mail story was a crock. The TV screen in the photo is located in Beijing, but it’s displaying a tourism commercial that includes a rotating series of images. One of which just happens to be a sunrise. Bischoff scolded:

Yes, Beijing is polluted, as we at Tech in Asia have also been critical of, but this story is complete bullshit. International media should be embarrassed for not taking even a moment to second guess the Daily Mail, one of the least reputable news sources in the UK.

Phew, it’s a good thing BPP kept you from sharing that one, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading, and congratulations. You are now qualified to practice Bullshit Prevention Protocol, and thus to defend truth and justice throughout the Internet. I would tell you that your cape is in the mail. But that would be bullshit.

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33 thoughts on “The Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention

  1. Thanks for a good summary. May we non-journalists request of journalists, in return, that you publish links to your sources when possible. It is frustrating to read an article that makes a claim that purports to be a summary of recently published research but that fails to link to the published paper. The first step in BPP in that case is to find the paper and decide if the reporter even understood the science (too often: “no”) and that just reduces the number of people who can fact check.

    In your sunrise example, the Daily Mail journalist reporting where the photograph was taken so that a Beijing local could easily confirm at least the existence of the billboard would have helped. And if journalists started reporting source links, now so easy when many are online, their absence could become a red flag rather than a too common request for faith.

  2. Very good point, Jeff, thanks. Journos used to avoid lengthy citations for space reasons, but in the digital age we can easily link to our original sources.

  3. Publishing links is a step in the right direction, but there’s a downside: you’ve moved the trail of authenticity one step. If I read your link(s), which reference other links, I’m not necessarily ahead of the game. Also, the referential multiplicity (perplexity?) has likely grown.

    I often read the acknowledgments in references I look up. If they are plentiful and varied, I give the author(s) some credence for doing real work, and for being prepared for pushback if those secondary sources complain. If not, . . .

    So, where are the references for the BPP?

  4. I think Jeff is talking about linking to primary sources (e.g research papers), not other secondary sources. As for references within the post, I intentionally didn’t include links to the Daily Mail story and its reprints — I used a screenshot so that I wouldn’t give those pages additional traffic.

  5. great humorous take on a real problem! plus the BPP provides a very useful step-by-step guide i can follow next time i encounter some internet BS that needs debunking.

  6. One could also use Google Images to search the image and you get instant verification that it is a hoax see – https://www.google.co.in/search?tbs=sbi:AMhZZiu-N7jheXRplM9UPxp1FPn6Mmf0fW-MROEX-G2p79oDrjCyA3XxygVB0yN9d2baPPeSY630mCAFSXb3Xs_1t4dMzHCv7nBDSf8WRHhiJJCEB-2mndHthk74tJdngHX5EdoPOMZI9jjcNDtTG6ceODq4ooVmnzXlKfU8OU56yVOVPEEW2NhtfDY1MMxdt7a4UXogwXRIQLOfbz_1Mqf1Q5D-sms78j_1paOhclk3cttRaZQTKPKOJsrHu9Q1kaG9TaKqt0dJ-j7Y40SjjnDELGB0ORFYEmkgAMmwzwhtFNSSvMnJsMyOru2rNysAJhecGBuooCB6o3_1_1ZKzsPZdg6j5DiDh9HE9BRQBH3eClKDls-4N9W3EEhuDFididrgqQvc-t83Qv-kRXngFCoiBtqdnU_1C5NLcCoddIeKajA-gNVz5sf5kKBmzATDzceWJshyG0QOMg4QcL7y2Uo_1ROVXadOR3sV7uGpincOuWskIWcoenfS7ybT9mSeSfi5emPwk-RmCtHlQF5M_11iRoSJ-a1tIb78zaWMuSY1WsRKbP7LdaOMsTS0HkipvyA7ZhBbo9t4wiJ6hAnO2y-mL0p_16_1iyGYfE2JpOGPz04eXG2is0i-WIq57YZIX2-uYd-ooposaE1820RC7Dh6V_1MC6GujoegQN1-1uy8KPEP48Yu_1VEDzEINIshEdApBUtsiAyizBJNY9kt_1ufGJlu417IXNwe4EVI1FYFZ7AsdqggOVJ0K4jriq5vle8oISmQjRVv80gCj-9pVTkyz_1kN4Yk61Th6UNCg8SiSnSGMsgwRCOJMURIclCZ4WWsSTzDLkZuy9tApIcNUprjV8mqZDmesLFjWhY5QEYavSeTbSS0izVFBfsaOWyuDFfaGjpV3n-S_1n7fr7nZiuaWYR0Q4cqm-qVl_1LBZ2g_1kLIS0oRwwRWlz0rkVFqEfpFCtWDE7gr6mTM8j4-BZiPOSkPNlazDl8J3RexvOrVauFiqLj5xUY4GjB5ZmJ1AedPAd-7VLMi7u7twrYMmqaOetOlcLEPGfw7GmkQ1eixAr-XLdhdyNIJTRDR04enR1eJaCvYb3T3y0ifyLAifLuUj3CWPNeJYMV8dRQh21eYgjp79KN7AfZMC_1F7Hfv_1GmpIzLUAxZURg0xxlmSCm5xmSo6HjW1-elYhzqaUdMvT1KzzvVELrgtN6oausLaecyu2-if0_1i0QpE63-4gwyeuupkEA8LVcsEF7DaedSiUDmnS2kdI48Q_1XcYTkzoavoL4v5ZhSGEJD0eOJ4Ch3NGKWNvAQUsJE-X2XlSBEApBrv2-rK6daKDE-vQurqMQEVGtwP1UBtIzmjMFrKUXO7Eux9h7JfzCfur2AhPCoQiQSexnJObnxJBZ-D00zBF7IXuri4jWKg761zI6ZjSlFc8cig4HtFS5o9sqUGUrc_1hvEJFlSA37RpM0-Xwu5D3obQEdiHXBD0wOi1e40yHN5TzNsWMcSPsIPZTWObKZpuA18KTmXKGmZriYAjU-QSqrC8Ab9jIfdapHOaU6yCX6PQZQNE0mP

  7. I would love to modify the language a little to use this test with primary school students. Would you grant me permission to modify your wording while using your ideas?

  8. Hi Erika, yes, of course. In fact, I already made a “safe for classroom” version for a friend of mine who’s a high school teacher – I’ll send that to you and you can modify as you wish.

  9. I’m not a teacher, but I prefer a “safe for classroom” version for reasons of language and taste.

  10. I’m old enough to remember a time when ‘journalism’ required the author to verify their facts before publishing the news. Now they don’t even lie about it; instead they use statements like – ‘This isn’t verified yet.’ ‘Is it possible?” – and spin entire stories out of BS, with no regard to whether anything they’re saying is true or not. Example: ‘Malaysia Airlines Flight 370′. Fox News intentionally spun so much terrorism crap out of that one, it was hard to weave through all the garbage to hear the facts. Sadly, the ‘news’ has become nothing more than hyped up story telling, and if I want to read that, I’ll go find an author who does a better job writing fiction than many new stations do of reporting the news. At least in fiction, the author doesn’t try and pass of lies as truth.

  11. Ok, wait, so who’s this Michelle Nijhuis person? Sounds like a journalist, so the source is probably biased when arguing up the value of journalism. Too busy to research the original source. So I better not believe a word about this BPP protocol and keep retweeting and sharing everything I read (including the link to this excellent article) :-)

  12. Great article. I also find important a “step zero” – what is being said here? And throughout the process – is it the same as what the source is saying? This would have saved us much BS from overinterpretation of the correlational study on the brains of marijuana users, for example.

  13. I love this post! Sometimes it feels like I spend all day debunking fake news stories, I wish more people practised BPP! Another thing to look out for is the fake/satirical websites, they write fake news for fun and so many times it gets blindly picked up by mainstream media without them checking it at all!

  14. Hi Michelle, love your post! I would be very grateful if you could sent me the teacher version too, so I could use it for my students. Thanks in advance!

  15. Thanks for the article sir. In the web (and other mediums) there’s always room for garbage thst attempts to stimulate views and visitors. It’s good to brush up on tgr bullshit basics. I’m going to have to find that course now.

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  17. Buried in the original “story” is a huge lack of respect for the reader. I’m not speaking of the lie, but rather the clever photograph that paints an ironic picture of modern Beijing. A caption telling the truth while offering a clever conclusion (i.e. “Here’s one solution for missing the dawn’s early light.”) would be worthy of repeating without any of the BS. The actual story insults readers, although Mail viewers know that and accept it. Corporate media, however, has no excuse.

  18. I’m near a town in NW Montana that a young friend of mine read on some site has rail cars parked loaded with guillotines and shackles. I told him I would research it. I don’t see them here… But how do I disprove it? I am 99.99etc% that this is a made up fact…I can ask local law enforcement, or walk the tracks for a few miles in each direction. I’d like to reassure him and others. Advice?

  19. M. Hayden, this is exactly what science writers do, what detectives do: act like chickens in the spring time, running outside and scratching up clouds of dust. Here’s the advice you asked for: don’t begin by trying to disprove it; just try to find out whether the rail cars exist. Start with the internet because you never know: like maybe some online archive somewhere has old pictures; or other 25 towns in NW Montana have the same story. Then I’d try the railroad that owns the tracks, their online sites if they have them or call them up and try to find if their public information person can help: like, do rail cars have manifests of their contents? and can the public see them? I also like your idea of local law enforcement. If you suspect this is an old story, you could also try the local librarian; or if you have a local history society, try that. Or you could see whether Google Earth has high resolution satellite pictures of the area. Or train hobbyists, who must surely be all over the internet, might have some suggestions. Proving that something does exist just means turning up the evidence for it. Proving that something doesn’t exist is harder and is often just an argument, a case. Good luck. This is real fun.

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